Florida (12-8, 4-3) vs. Vanderbilt (8-12, 0-7)
Memorial Gym, Nashville, Tennessee; today, 8:30 p.m. EST, SEC Network, 103.7-FM
Although the Gators have received no shortage of criticism – some fair, some not – for the team’s play after starting the season ranked No. 6 in the preseason AP Top-25 poll, UF coach Mike White hasn’t seen any of it, nor has he sought out critiques of the program.
Frankly, with the team in the midst of a three-game losing streak, White has more pressing matters at hand – namely, how to get the Gators back on course defensively.
When Florida takes the court at the Memorial Gymnasium at 8:30 p.m. Saturday against a Vanderbilt program coming off its 25th consecutive conference loss, in the process breaking the SEC record for repeated futility in league play initially set by Sewanee back in the 1939-40 season, White expects the Gators to play with an “edge” – something the team lacked in the second half against Mississippi State on Tuesday.
Despite taking a 10-point lead into the half, the Gators suffered their third straight setback as Bulldogs star Reggie Perry went for a career-high 27 points in the O’Connell Center.
“I want more of an edge for sure, we lack edge defensively. Our defensive numbers have steadily declined over the past month. We’ve got to screw ourselves back down defensively and do what we know we’re capable of and play with the amount of edge necessary to win an SEC game,” White said Friday before the team departed for Nashville. “We need to play desperate defensively. I like where we are offensively, we’ve come a long way.”
White admitted this iteration of the Gators “struggles more defensively than any team I’ve had”, and the numbers through 20 games seem to back up the assertion that this group has dropped off in that department.
By the end of January during the 2018-19 season, in what also was an up-and-down campaign before a last push for the postseason, UF ranked 19th in the country in defensive efficiency; through 20 games this season, the Gators rank 126th in that department.
For UF to do what it did last season – surge in February and make the NCAA Tournament – it’ll require that defensive edge, said White.
“I’ve never had a team that defended this poorly. Ever. Yeah. So I’ve got to figure it out. I’ve done a poor job with this team defensively. I have. What we’ve done, obviously the last month, is not translating to defending at a high level in games. So we’re going to defend a lot (Friday) in practice, and I hope we make shots tomorrow. You’re always going to do both (offense and defense in practice). And do you do 50-50, do you do 60-40? We’ve been doing 50-50 for a long time, and maybe we’ve got to defend more in practice,” White said. “But I also know we’ve got to be fresh. Winning at Vandy is very, very difficult, I know firsthand. They’re coming off arguably their best performance, had a chance to win at Rupp. They’re playing their best basketball of the year, in my opinion.”
While the issues are certainly concerning, they haven’t shaken the team’s belief that they’re permanently correctable, however.
“We haven’t given up at all. We had a big meeting yesterday and we’re in the right place right now. We’re trying to mentally get that consistency back and I feel like we’re going to make a big jump,” sophomore shooting guard Noah Locke said. “Sometimes we don’t have our focus at the right spot. When we have a lot of energy, when everyone’s out there talking and communicating, when we’re connected in those regards, it’s much better for us. We just got to get back to us.”
Keyontae Johnson;F;6-5;231;So.;13.0 ppg;6.6 rpg
Kerry Blackshear Jr.;F;6-10;241;Gr.;14.4 ppg;8.4 rpg
Andrew Nembhard;G;6-5;193;So.;11.2 ppg;6.1 apg
Noah Locke;G;6-3;207;So.;9.9 ppg;2.9 rpg
Scottie Lewis;G;6-5;185;Fr.;8.6 ppg;4.1 rpg
Dylan Disu;F;6-9;220;Fr.;6.7 ppg;5.9 rpg
Ejike Obinna;C;6-10;243;RSo.;3.7 ppg;3.6 rpg
Saben Lee;G;6-2;183;Jr.;16.2 ppg;3.2 rpg
Scotty Pippen Jr..;G;6-1;170;Fr.;11.1 ppg;3.1 rpg
Maxwell Evans;G;6-2;190;Jr.;7.2ppg;3.4 rpg
Notes: Florida attempts to win at Vanderbilt in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2005 and 2006, but must bounce back from a three-game skid. The Gators have won three of the last four meetings overall vs. the Commodores …This will be the first of two games in 15 days between Florida and Vanderbilt, which will play the back end of the series in Gainesville on Feb. 15 … Scottie Lewis looks to build on a career-best 17-point outing vs. Mississippi State. Lewis scored 10 of his 17 points in the first four minutes of the game … Noah Locke brings an 18-game streak with at least one made 3-pointer, which included a 15-game stretch with multiple made 3-pointers that was the best such streak in Florida history … Vanderbilt freshman guard Scotty Pippen Jr. is the son of NBA legend Scottie Pippen.